Scriptures and Sectarianism

Essays on the Dead Sea Scrolls

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John J. Collins
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , November
     343 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Scriptures & Sectarianism is a collection of sixteen essays on a diversity of topics pertaining to recent scholarly debates about the Dead Sea Scrolls. These essays were composed by John J. Collins—one of the world’s leading and most respected scrolls scholars—over a span of ten years (2003 to 2013). Most of these essays, apart from the introduction on “What have we learned from the Dead Sea Scrolls?” and the essay on “Covenant and Dualism in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” were previously published. The present volume has been organized into three sections: Part 1, “Scripture and Interpretation”; Part 2, “History and Sectarianism”; and Part 3, “The Sectarian Worldview.” Collins’s opening essay introduces his readers to the breadth of topics that are of focus within the rest of the volume—including the origins of the scrolls, how the scrolls might illuminate the development of the Hebrew Bible, and the relationship between the scrolls and early Judaism and early Christianity.

Part 1 includes six essays that focus on the interpretation of scriptures. In his second article, Collins examines the shifting significance of the Torah through the Jewish Second Temple Period (530 BCE-70 CE). Collins notes that ancient Near Eastern legal codes “were not prescriptive in nature” (21); however, at a certain point, biblical law was regarded as prescriptive. Collins contends that during the Hasmonean era (167 BCE-40 BCE), literary works interested in matters of Jewish legal interpretation, such as Jubilees and the Temple Scroll, were likely composed in response to attempts by Antiochus IV Epiphanes “to displace the traditional Torah” (34). While during this same period, the Maccabees, the Judean family leading a revolt against Antiochus, utilized the Torah as a tool to unite the peoples of Judea. The Judean community ultimately split into sectarian factions due to their competing interpretations of the Torah. In his third essay, Collins contends that Deuteronomy serves as a sort of interpretation upon an earlier authoritative covenant. Similarly, Collins asserts that Jubilees and the Temple Scroll, examples of what most scholars call “rewritten scripture,” were composed to elucidate potentially ambiguous elements within the interpretation of the traditional Torah, offering new understandings of Torah for new contexts. In his fourth article, Collins argues that, unlike earlier Judean writings which freely rewrote traditional scriptures to interpret them for new audiences, the sectarian scrolls—those scrolls often thought to be composed by the Qumran community—often make a clear distinction between text and interpretation, and claim an authoritative revelatory source for their interpretations. The following three essays focus upon the interpretation of individual scriptural works among the Dead Sea Scrolls: Genesis 1-3 (fifth essay), Psalm 2 (sixth essay), and the Book of Daniel (seventh essay).

In Part 2, Collins considers the relationship between historiography and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the emergence of the yahad—the sect associated with the composition of the sectarian scrolls. In his eighth article, Collins contends that no historiographical writings akin to the books of Maccabees or Josephus are preserved among the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, Collins notes that a few texts–several apocalyptic works and the pesharim (scriptural commentaries)—invoke historical memory, and he suggests that the so-called “annalistic lists” may have served as historical records for the Qumran community (128). Accordingly, Collins acknowledges that the scrolls were “not entirely indifferent to historical memory” (132). In light of the deficiency of historical narratives among the scrolls, Collins, in his ninth article, cautions that “some historical information can be inferred from the Dead Sea Scrolls, especially the pesharim, although this information is neither as ample nor as certain as has often been supposed” (148). Collins’s tenth paper examines Gabriele Boccaccini’s theory that Enochic Judaism—a theoretical form of ancient Judaism centered around a cluster of traditions focusing on the patriarch Enoch—served as the parent organization of the yahad—a version of Boccaccini’s hypothesis can be found in Beyond the Essene Hypothesis: The Parting of the Ways between Qumran and Enochic Judaism, (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006). While Collins concurs that significant links exist between the two movements, he rejects Boccaccini’s thesis, noting that this thesis espouses an overly simplistic relationship between the two movements. In the eleventh and final article in this section, Collins considers the ambiguity of the terms “sect” and “sectarian,” and highlights some of the difficulties in attempting to identify a clearly “sectarian” group of writings among the approximately 930 Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts. Focusing upon 4QInstruction, Collins notes that, while the work exhibits a “quasi sectarian character” (176), it does not suggest “the kind of systematic focus on Torah interpretation that we find in the ‘mature’ sectarian scrolls from Qumran” (176), nor does it suggest the physically separated social community described in other sectarian works.

Part 3 considers issues central to the worldview of the Qumran community. In Collins’s twelfth article, he categorizes the yahad as “a movement of covenantal renewal” (179). While traditional scriptures—such as Deuteronomy—note that God made a covenant with Israel, the yahad was exclusivist in nature, and had separated themselves the rest of the people of Israel. Accordingly, the yahad needed to modify Deuteronomic theology. One of the unique ways that the yahad attempts to do this is by adopting a dualistic view of the world, whereby the world was separated between the “sons of light” (the members of the yahad) and the “sons of darkness” (the opponents of the yahad). In his thirteenth article, Collins discusses the Second Temple belief that the righteous “would join the heavenly host after death” (195), and suggests that the sectarian scrolls further developed this belief, envisioning a transformed angelic life in which members of the yahad were able to enjoy fellowship with the angels in the present. In his fourteenth essay, Collins compares the description offered in some early Greek sources—Josephus and Hippolytus—of the Essene belief in the afterlife with the description of the afterlife found in the sectarian scrolls. Collins concludes that it cannot be established with certainty that the Essenes, as described by Josephus and Hippolytus, should be identified with the yahad of the sectarian scrolls. In his fifteenth article, Collins focuses on the meaningful role of ritual in everyday life at Qumran. For the yahad, ritual reflects the way that the yahad believed the world should be. In his sixteenth article, Collins examines the development of Second Temple wisdom literature; and in particular, Collins contends that 4QInstruction combines both wisdom and apocalyptic themes. While Collins believes that 4QInstruction serves as a missing link in the development of Jewish wisdom traditions, he also suggests that it represents a distinct branch within its development—that it is distinct from other works such as Sirach, which combined wisdom and Torah themes.

In the epilogue, Collins considers the much-debated relationship between the scrolls and earliest Christianity. Collins critiques attempts at associating the yahad with early Christianity, concluding that while the two movements were distinct they did share several common traditions, which they interpreted in different ways.

Collins’s assortment of essays serves as a wonderful introduction to many of the current issues in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in this way, Scriptures and Sectarianism may very well join the esteemed acclaim of Collins’s other well-known works, such as The Scepter and the Star (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010), The Apocalyptic Imagination (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016), and his commentary on Daniel (Fortress Press, 1994). However, while the essays in this collection serve well to elucidate Collins’s position on several key debates in the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the yahad, the collection does little to advance these discussions in new directions, which is largely due to the fact that most of the essays in the collection have been published elsewhere. The collection also suffers from considerable overlap—often providing multiple introductions for the same literary works and repetitively reciting key tenants of the yahad. Though the collection did well to highlight several current issues in the study of the scrolls and the yahad, it was rather surprising that it suffers from a fair amount of repetition yet did not address several current issues in the field. For instance, the collection did not include a sustained discussion of the ongoing debate regarding the relationship between the Aramaic Dead Sea Scrolls—constituting about 17% of the collection and not seemingly sectarian—and the sectarian scrolls composed in Hebrew. Nevertheless, Collins’s collection will serve well to introduce interested individuals to several current scholarly debates surrounding the study of the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as to Collins’s position on these issues.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Andrew D. Knight-Messenger is a Ph.D. candidate at McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada.

Date of Review: 
May 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John J. Collins is Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism and Interpretation at Yale Divinity School and a recognized expert in early Judaism and the Dead Sea Scrolls. His many other works include The Apocalyptic ImaginationBeyond the Qumran CommunityThe Scepter and the Star, and (with Daniel C. Harlow) The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism.


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